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Islam and Secularism in Turkish Politics

Mustafa Kemal established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and was later given the name "Atatürk" meaning "Father of the Turks". His intention was to create a society where there is a separation that allows private life and political life to exist independently. Politics and private life are thus free from religion or free from the tsendency of Islam to seek an all-encompassing role in society. This is in stark contrast to the Ottoman Empire that did, in fact, intertwine religion with society, politics, judicial and military affairs.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wanted a modern, secular Turkish Republic to replace the failed, theocratic Ottoman Empire. Although most Turks are Sunni Muslims, he believed that the achievement of a modern Turkey required that the conservative restraints of the Ottoman Caliphate and Islamic law be abolished, the role of religion in the state be limited, and ?anachronistic? religious practices ended. Secularism was one of his fundamental principles and is a constitutionally-defined characteristic of the Republic. The institutionalization of secularism has produced tensions between Kemalists and conservative Sunni Muslims, often called Islamists, that continue to resonate in Turkish politics today. The secularists accuse the Islamists of seeking to resurrect a state governed by Islamic law. The Islamists deny the charge, claiming they only want a state based on moral principles. They have formed political parties to advance their ideas, but most have been banned. As Ataturk's heirs, the Turkish military is the constitutionally-mandated guarantor of the state and it has energetically defended the secular character of the state in recent years.

Prior to the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire was a dominant presence in northern Africa, southeastern Europe, and western Asia that held Islam at its roots. The Empire spread Islamic culture and influence across the eastern hemisphere that still exists today. After the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire began to faulter against the European military and captive nations seeking to regain lost independence. They attempted to modernize their military, but to no avail, and many in the Ottoman empire resisted this attempt at modernizations. Following the disasterous participation of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, Turkish nationalist were brought together by Mustafa Kemal, a member of the nationalist reform organization known as the Young Turks, who created the Republic of Turkey and abolished the temporal and religious ruling institutions of the old Ottoman empire.

In 1922 the new nationalist regime abolished the Ottoman sultanate. The sultan once acted in political, military, judicial, social, and religious capacities, under a variety of titles. He was theoretically responsible only to God and God's law. In 1924, the regime abolished the caliphate, the religious office that Ottoman sultans had held for four centuries. Thus, for the first time in Islamic history, no ruler claimed spiritual leadership of Islam. Religion had been separated not only from politics, but from public life as well. The withdrawal of Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, as the presumptive leader of the world Muslim community was symbolic of the change in the government's relationship to Islam. Indeed, secularism became one of the "Six Arrows" (republicanism, populism, secularism, reformism, nationalism, statism) of Atatürk's program for remaking Turkey. Whereas Islam had formed the identity of Muslims within the Ottoman Empire, secularism was seen as molding the new Turkish nation and its citizens.

Atatürk and his associates not only abolished certain religious practices and institutions but also questioned the value of religion, preferring to place their trust in science. They regarded organized religion as an anachronism and contrasted it unfavorably with "civilization," which to them meant a rationalist, secular culture. Establishment of secularism in Turkey was not, as it had been in the West, a gradual process of separation of church and state. In the Ottoman Empire, all spheres of life, at least theoretically, had been subject to religious law, and Sunni religious organizations had been part of the state structure. When the reformers of the early 1920s opted for a secular state, they removed religion from the sphere of public policy and restricted it exclusively to that of personal morals, behavior, and faith. Although private observance of religious rituals could continue, religion and religious organization were excluded from public life.

The policies directly affecting religion were numerous and sweeping. In addition to the abolition of the caliphate, new laws mandated abolition of the office of seyhülislam (the ultimate judicial power of Turkey); abolition of the religious hierarchy; the closing and confiscation of Sufi lodges (a spiritual meeting palce), meeting places, and monasteries and the outlawing of their rituals and meetings; establishment of government control over the evkaf (the Muslim institution that regulates religious activity for Turkish Cypriots),which had been inalienable under seriat (Islamic law); replacement of seriat with adapted European legal codes; the closing of religious schools; abandonment of the Islamic calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar used in the West; restrictions on public attire that had religious associations, with the fez outlawed for men and the veil discouraged for women; and the outlawing of the traditional garb of local religious leaders.

Atatürk and his colleagues also attempted to Turkify Islam through official encouragement of such practices as using Turkish rather than Arabic at devotions, substituting the Turkish word Tanri for the Arabic word Allah, and introducing Turkish for the daily calls to prayer. These changes in devotional practices deeply disturbed faithful Muslims and caused widespread resentment, which led in 1933 to a return to the Arabic version of the call to prayer. Of longer-lasting effect were the regime's measures prohibiting religious education, restricting the building of new mosques, and transferring existing mosques to secular purposes. Most notably, the Hagia Sophia (Justinian's sixth-century Christian basilica, which had been converted into a mosque by Mehmet II) was made a museum in 1935. The effect of these changes was to make religion, or more correctly Sunni Islam, subject to the control of a hostile state. Muftis and imams (prayer leaders) were appointed by the government, and religious instruction was taken over by the Ministry of National Education.

A more direct manifestation of the growing reaction against secularism was the revival of the Sufi brotherhoods. Not only did suppressed Sufi lodges such as the Kadiri, Mevlevi, and Naksibend, (three of the 12 branches of the basic dervish orders of Islam) reemerge, but new orders were formed, including the Nurcular, Süleymançi, and Ticani. The Ticani became especially militant in confronting the state. For example, Ticani damaged monuments to Atatürk to symbolize their opposition to his policy of secularization. Throughout the 1950s, there were numerous trials of Ticani(a specific order of Sufi Islam) and other Sufi leaders for antistate activities. Simultaneously, however, some tarikatlar, notably the Süleymançi and Nurcular, cooperated with those politicians perceived as supportive of pro-Islamic policies. The Nurcular eventually advocated support for Turkey's multiparty political system, and one of its offshoots, the Isikçilar, has openly supported the Motherland Party since the mid-1980s.

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Page last modified: 17-07-2016 13:01:34 ZULU